State Of Economy: Fireworks, As Academia, Public Analysts Clash In UNILAG
THERE was always going to be something different about the proceedings of the day; and the Main Auditorium, University of Lagos (UNILAG), was already animated when the guests walked in. They were the Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University, Professor Babajide Alo, Public Affairs analyst, Dr. Femi Aribasala, Representative of Ford Foundation, Mr. Innocent Chukwuma and Professor of Journalism and Communication, Ralph Akinfeleye, in the company of other dignitaries from the university community.
But the tension was not about the grey hair or the spectacle of the varying physique of the guests that made their way to the front of the hall; the issue in contention was who the number one citizen of the University is, an impromptu debate keenly contested on stage by two 100-level students of Mass Communication and moderated by dramatist, Tunji Sotimirin. While one of the students argued that the answer to the question was the Vice Chancellor, Rahmon Ade-Bello, the other interjected, impressing on the audience that the correct answer ought to be the Pro-Chancellor of the institution, Professor Jerry Gana. Professor of International Law and Jurisprudence, Akin Oyebode sat at a corner unfazed, obviously enjoying the banter.
Sotimirin was taken aback by the confusion and how vehemently the two students stood their ground, defending their positions with no strain of uncertainty on their faces. The audience was dumb-struck, cacophonous; a student asked, in a corner, what, really, the difference was. It turned out this was a sign of greater things to come. All that banter had just been a prologue.
The main event was the public discourse organised by the Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP) West Africa Chapter captioned Campaign Funding and the Looming Tsunami of Poverty. Having gained much traction in the media, the debate attracted the crème of ‘who is who’ in UNILAG and environs, promising to be a copious intellectual bite with a keynote lecture by Professor Akin Oyebode.
Aside being a public discourse, the debate was a novel idea for political engagement in Nigeria, especially at the Ivory Towers. It promised more than just intellectual dialogue, there was a palpable air of anticipation of fireworks as the frontline spokespersons of Nigeria’s ruling party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the opposition, All Progressives Congress (APC) were billed to take to the lectern. For the gathered young, enthusiastic minds, the longing for knowledge, a clash of ideas from Professors across faculties and the intimacy of discussion of national issues was enough temptation to fill the hall. Unfortunately, representatives of the two political parties did not show up, but the drama that played out later on was more than was expected.
Prof. Akinfeleye opened the floor, drawing from his seminal work on journalism in Africa to extrapolate on the various shades of poverty.
“There is the poverty of tolerance, poverty of accountability, poverty of truth, poverty of altruism, intellectual poverty in the country. Some political advisers have gone beyond their bounds. They have sold their conscience and are now doling out satanic verses,” he said, his voice rising in condemnation. The audience cheered in agreement. Energetic and cerebral, he implicated the press in the rot that Nigeria was. He argued, among other things, that the continued disregard for journalism of conscience by journalists in the country has robbed the people of the opportunity to reap the benefits of governance. He stressed — and the audience agreed with nods and chants — that truthful journalism was pertinent for a robust democracy.
Agreeing with him, Professor of Sociology, Adebayo Ninalowo, said intellectual poverty is traceable even to the press these days. According to him, “when Journalists, who should hold politicians accountable and locked in ideological exchange are now interested in who brings his wife to the public or not, or who can provide his General Certificate Examination (GCE) or Cambridge certificate, then we are deep in intellectual poverty.”
Professor Thomas Pogge of Yale University, in a video message, intimated the audience to the troubling issue of poverty across the globe and the shift, from 2016, from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nations (UN). He said academics must not isolate themselves by siding with the political and economic class, but should be empathic to the struggles of the poor and use their knowledge in fighting poverty.
Then it was time for Professor Oyebode to give his highly anticipated keynote lecture. As expected, the lecture didn’t disappoint on its promise. Reeking of the philosophies of Karl Marx, Lenin and Thomas Hobbes, Oyebode situates Nigeria as a special case of a ‘disarticulate economy.’ The lecture gently — as his demeanor portends — pokes serious jabs at what Nigeria has become and how stipulations on electoral funding contained in the constitution, the electoral act, the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA), were mere paper tigers.
“Nigeria’s disarticulate economy, to borrow the expression of Claude Ake, has only ensured that Nigerians remain in the quagmire of underdevelopment, abject poverty, crass ignorance, unbelievable squalor and endemic diseases. The mono-cultural economy now confronted by dwindling oil prices, a crippled capital market and devalued currency as well as skyrocketing foreign exchange rates mean that there can be no light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
The lecture continued with this stress and chiefly dwelt on how the inability of the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Attahiru Jega, to “blow the whistle and administer requisite sanctions constitutes acceptances of acts of impunity and blatant tumbling in the noses of millions of impecunious Nigerians banished to existence under the poverty line.”
He crunched data on economic and governance indicators and lamented the excesses of the ruling class amid widespread poverty in the country, citing Charles Soludo’s recent article as a testimonial to the failures of governance.
The audience was awed, some at his intellect; others at his facility with high sounding words like ‘weltanschauung’ and ‘skullduggery.’ The students — especially the new intakes — who occupied a section of the hall, hummed and ‘arrhh’-ed. The hall ruptured in resounding applause and a standing ovation at the end of the lecture.
But it seemed this did not sit well with everyone in the hall, as when he was called to make remarks on the keynote lecture, Aribisala expressed shock at what he termed “intellectual poverty coming from an ivory tower.” His first grouse with the organisers of the debate was on the invitation card sent to him on which the organisers said that Nigerians are not reaping the dividends of democracy. He contested this claim, citing statistics from the World Bank that Nigeria recorded an all-time low of around 30 percent in poverty ratings. Reeling out other such figures, he pushed for what he termed a ‘balancing of the facts.’
He said the government should be given kudos for the rebasing of the economy, the growth of the creative industry and positive ratings of Nigeria as an economic powerhouse and a preferred destination for foreign investments.
He was not done. Earlier, a representative of the Speakers Society, a group in UNILAG formed in the 1970s, relished his days of activism and charged the students on radicalism, and how possible it was for them to contribute to national discourse with the instrumentality of public speaking and debates. Aribisala would have nothing of this. He said the call to radicalism was a mark of intellectual poverty on the academia, stressing that the call rather should be to rationality and free expression.
As he spoke, an impromptu radical group formed at the right wing of the hall. They shouted him down point-after-point, almost denying him an audience. They insisted that he was speaking as though he was a spokesperson of the government and demanded that he said the truth. Occupants of a section of the high table were almost protesting, too. One of them waved his hand in amusement, as if saying, “What is this man saying?”
Aribisala, undeterred, continued, emphasising that he belonged to no political party and had never voted in Nigeria before. He revealed that he would be voting for the first time in the coming elections in February. After much talk, and satisfied that he had made his point, he eased himself back to the seat. While the radical group sighed in protest, some students stood up, clapping for Aribisala. There was a tense quiet in the hall for a moment.
Enter the Managing Director (MD), Premium Times, Dapo Olunrunyomi. He said, among other things, that investigative journalism was the one institution that would ensure that democracy was truly and firmly installed in any society as it afforded the opportunity for transparency and accountability, making a particular case for Nigeria. He disagreed honourably with Aribisala, with the subsidy scam, projecting, in a presentation, figures to boot. He showed, with raw data, the contradictory records of different organs of government, such as the Central Bank of Nigeria, to Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). He revealed that over 2 trillion was paid for subsidy and hinted that the contradiction showed that government was indeed smart by half with figures.
Innocent Chukwuma, representing the Ford Foundation, on his part, gave an incisive presentation on impunity and democratic consolidation, but not without adding to the drama. He said democratic consolidation can be assessed on three prongs of procedure, content and result, in all of which Nigeria has been found wanting. He faulted Aribisala on this count and stressed that true democracy was beyond the data Aribisala reeled out.